by William Craft Brumfield, Duke University Press, June 2015. 256 p. ill. ISBN97808223-59067 (cl.), $39.95.
Reviewed January 2017
William Craft Brumfield began photographing Russian architecture in the 1970s, when it was very difficult for Westerners to enter and travel within the Soviet Union. His first foray into documenting Northern Russia church and village architecture took place in 1988, and again in 1991 and 1993, with deeper exploration in 1995. These 197 color photographs are some of the few documentary photographs available of the existing architecture. The Russian North territory was not open to most Western photographers in the Soviet era and is exceptionally geographically remote, even today. The photographs provide a view of Northern Russian historic village architecture; many villages and much church architecture of this region no longer exist.
This fascinating geographic cultural area of Northern Russia from Yaroslavl, on the Volga River, to the White Sea and Solevetsky Islands, west of Finland and northeast of St. Petersburg, near the harsh Arctic Circle, was settled by tenth to thirteenth-century Slavs and Finns. Northern Russia is still some of the most desolate extreme territory to explore and navigate. Brumfield’s objective was to photograph surviving church architecture in functioning village environments for clues to its survival or decline. Hundreds of villages have disappeared along with their churches and wooden architecture, to date. Surviving architecture bears witness to the creative and resilient cultural traditions.
Brumfield’s photographs, along with a travelogue and history, document conditions of structures before decisions were made to restore them, a critical record in architectural history. Many villages have been depopulated as a result of demographic shifts, the aftermath of the Soviet regime, and changes in economic and social policies. Also, many villages today are not easy to define, culturally or geographically, given that traditions have been forgotten and drifted with widespread access to television.
Designs of traditional wooden churches were based on medieval Novgorod and Moscow churches. Brumfield’s photos document in situ architectural examples which existed prior to village church destruction in the Russian North, but do not include deep historical architectural structural and technical analysis.
What will remain of the heritage of the Russian North, its villages and church architecture, most of which are of wood? Without Brumfield’s contribution of photographs of these northern village churches, so difficult to reach given the taiga, permafrost, climate, and lack of passable roads, little photographic architectural history of this regional church architecture would exist. The publication of this book of photographs and travelogue speaks of a world almost lost to architectural history.
Recommended for library collections including Russian architecture, art, history and culture.